The big floating storage debate | FT Alphaville

The big floating storage debate

The issue of floating storage is causing a spirited debate within the energy trading community.

You see, time-spreads are improving — in energy speak that means the curve is flattening, and the contango is abating. On a theoretical level that implies it is no longer economical to store crude oil for the purpose of profiting from the ‘contango trade‘. This is especially so for crude being held in more expensive floating storage.

Simply speaking, the curve implies traders have a strong incentive now to take profits on stored tanker cargoes and release them into the greater energy market.

And yes, the incentive is definitely there. The only problem is, executing that incentive, even in a rising price environment, isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Nevertheless, it appears traders are attempting to take profits. A recent report from Dow Jones suggests the number of crude carriers chartered for oil storage has been dropping. As the report states (our emphasis):

LONDON -(Dow Jones)- June 4, 2009-The number of supertankers used to store crude oil worldwide dropped last month after a rally in crude oil prices lured barrels onshore, shipping data suggested Thursday. A total of 34 very large crude carriers were in use for storage purposes at the end of May, down from 53 a month earlier, according to preliminary data from shipbroker Simpson Spence & Young Ltd.

The number of very large crude carriers – which typically hold about 2 million barrels of crude each – employed in U.S. Gulf of Mexico crude oil storage dropped to 16 from 24 over that period, said analysts at SSY, the world’s largest independent shipbroking group.

U.S. government data Wednesday revealed an 868,000 barrel a day rise in crude imports boosted U.S. onshore inventories last week. The climb was partly attributed to crude being brought ashore as traders sought to cash in on a rally that has seen prices rise to seven month highs near $70 a barrel this week.

A narrowing contango structure in crude oil futures during May also likely contributed to the release of crude from floating storage. A wide contango – a structure where near-term contracts are priced cheaper than those further into the future – offers potential profits from buying crude at current prices and selling it at a future, higher price. With global crude storage levels reported to have stood in excess of 100 million barrels at their height earlier this year, current prices and a change in the oil futures curve could bring even more crude back onto the market in the coming weeks.

But as they also caution:

However, with freight rates still at historic lows – and spreads between monthly contracts starting to widen again – it remains to be seen how long any destocking will persist. “I think it will take quite a while [to clear the overhang of floating storage] and if the contango fluctuates it could increase again before it decreases substantially – cheaper charter rates obviously help,” said Simon Chattrabhuti, head of tanker research at ICAP Shipping in London. He estimated 33 very large crude carriers are currently being used worldwide for floating storage purposes. 

At FT Alphaville we’ve heard from industry sources that as much as 135m barrels of stored petroleum products are being stored at sea over the current cycle. To compare, the current crude inventory stock in the US amounts to some 364m barrels. That’s a lot of floating oil to cash in on.

Here’s a chart showing comparatively just how much inventory oil there is in the US.

US DOE crude inventories - Bloomberg
Fundamentally speaking, it’s still hard to understand how there is  enough demand on the physical side to make that floating oil easy to sell. Just imagine how hard it would be to sell a 30 per cent stake in a FTSE 100 company without moving the market, and that doesn’t even involve demurring charges, capacity and spec issues.

As Harry Tchilingruian, senior oil analyst at BNP Paribas, points out:

SSY estimate that the daily cost for a 12 month time charter of a 300 Dwt VLCC is currently USD 41,500, down from USD 50,000 at the end of March. Assuming about 2.2 mb per 300kt VLCC, a back of the envelope arithmetic, if all the VLCCs were 300 kt ships, would imply that over 48 mb of crude oil is sitting on the water beside US shores. Add that amount to onshore industry crude stocks of 366 mb and that is a lot of crude.

So dumping the oil into the front-end would presumably have the effect of pushing prices lower. However, this is not happening. Yet, all evidence points to VLCCs and crude carriers being emptied.

A floating Catch-22?
There are two explanations here. Traders might just be transferring charters into smaller vessels to capitalise on lower rates.  The other is that prices have completely broken away from the fundamentals — which in the physical market seems an oddity.

But there is yet one other thing to consider. As prices rage higher alongside inflation hedging and new fund inflows, the fear of escalating prices is undoubtedly set to attract the hedging community back into the market at a significant rate: the airlines, the power companies and all those exposed to high oil prices. These players will seek to hedge exposure at the back end, something that should put renewed upward pressure on long-dated futures; something that may end up seeing the contango revert, once again seeing storage dynamics become economical.

But if there really is a glut on the market, one would expect it to reveal itself in the US cash crude differentials (the difference between the paper market price and the physical). Again, no symptoms here of any glut. Differentials are strong on a historical basis, as can be seen from the story below:

HOUSTON, June 4 (Reuters) – Key U.S. cash crude differentials gained as futures rebounded sharply and calendar spreads waffled back and forth Thursday, traders said.  Light Louisiana Sweet sold for $1.90 a barrel over West Texas Intermediate, up 15 cents.

Mars sour gained 5 cents to $1.65 under WTI.      “Spreads moved in 10 cents and out 7 or 8 and then back in again,” a broker said.      A stronger front-month WTI future contract versus back months usually weakens cash crudes. A weaker front-month usually strengthens them.

Both happened Thursday.      A trader said grades also benefited from crack spreads being on the upswing above $13 a barrel.      On futures markets, July WTI gained $2.69 to $68.81.  July Brent rose $2.83 to $68.71. The front-month WTI spread ended 9 cents narrower at -88 cents.      WTI’s advantage over Brent also was diminishing, ending at +10 cents Thursday.

Stronger Brent tends to support cash crude differentials.      Among other cash grades, Bonito light sour traded up 30 cents at +10 cents. Heavy Louisiana Sweet lost 25 cents to sell for +70 cents.      West Texas Sour changed hands for -$1.55, stronger by 15 cents. WTI at Midland sold for -50 cents, up 5 cents. Poseidon sour shed 5 cents to -$1.70.      On the West Coast, Alaskan North Slope crude last sold Wednesday for August delivery at 35 cents under WTI. The last  July deal was done Monday at 25 cents under.      Buyers raised posted prices for California crude by $2.70 a  barrel.    

According to energy analyst Morgan Downey, author of industry must-read “Oil 101“, there is only really one market where floating storage still makes sense and that is distillates. Reports suggest this practice is indeed gathering pace across the industry, which in itself is historically unusual due to the complications and costs involved.

Nevertheless, one can presume there is so much of an overhang in distillates it currently makes sense while tanker rates are low.

But that is largely another story, and doesn’t help to explain the crude scenario.

Import alert
With regard to crude, there are two last points to consider. First, it is possible there is so much crude in floating storage traders are caught in somewhat of a catch-22. If they try to dump their oil in one go on fears of backwardation reverting into the market ( making their positions very unprofitable), the move could have a depressing effect on the front-end of the curve. This would, needless to say, potentially resuscitate the contango encouraging traders to restock their floating storage once again. In short, whatever crude was disposed of this month, it may very well be in the process of being restocked.

We will only know for sure next month. What we do know in the meantime is that DOE data on Wednesday showed a large increase in US imports for the first time in a month last week. If you assume constant Opec production rates (a tall order we know, but please do presume),  then a lot of that crude would obviously have had to come from floating volumes. What’s more, the unexpected nature of the build itself supports the notion traders felt incentivised to destock.

As Olivier Jakob at Petromatrix points out:

According to SSY, at the end of May there were 34 VLCC used as crude floating storage compared to 53 a month ago. That is a stockdraw of about 38 myn bbls, including a draw of 16 myn bbls in the stocks afloat in the US Gulf. During the same period crude oil onshore in the US have been reduced by 10 myn bbls (including a 6 myn bbls draw in Padd3).

Hence the sharp reduction in offshore stocks has not even been able to prevent a reduction in onshore stocks and this then means that the real import flows are much lower than the face-value number shown in the DOE.

Of course, unless US refinery utilisation continues to go up this week, those constant Opec volumes may have to be taken up elsewhere.

What this might imply is that floating storage is essentially being churned through the system, the floating phenomenon itself resulting from a need for a buffer to compensate for oversupply during the lower demand period of the crisis. In that case — as we are not out of the catch-22 scenario described above just yet — some level of restocking  should be expected in the weeks to come.

However, it is also entirely possible the world is simply becoming used to a new norm in forward-cover periods as it adjusts to protect itself from upcoming supply shocks.

This could be an attempt to echo the EU’s own inventory guidelines which aim for at least 90 days of forward cover, versus the OECD average of 60. In that case it doesn’t matter how much extra inventory there is out there, we’re setting a new paradigm and the price of oil can happily disregard the current inventory builds, especially while tanker rates are cheap.

Related links:
‘Demand is in the toilet’
– FT Alphaville
Distillate hangover
– FT Alphaville